In my prior post, I wondered aloud whether there were some rough waters ahead for employers.  Apple recently announced that it would not meet it’s earnings estimates in the first quarter of 2019, in part because of soft demand from China. Other companies are expected to announce some similar issues.

Honestly, I’ve had enough conversations in the last few years with HR professionals who just haven’t lived through a major downturn.

Think about this way: For anyone who joined the workforce since 2010 or so, the era of massive layoffs in the financial and automobile sectors had just passed.

But fortunately, there are still a few of us around who remember.

So here are four things to think about:

  • Performance Reviews.   Why? Because when a downturn hits, your company will need to start a selection process as to who stays and who goes.  Inevitably, you will start looking at performance reviews to see about ranking employees.  You know what you might find? They all start looking alike. Everyone is slightly above average.   While I’m not suggesting everyone convert to a forced ranking system, your performance reviews should be honest indicators of how an employee is doing. Take a look at the ones you are doing this quarter.
  • WARN.  The Workers Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act  is one of those federal laws that you might not have even heard about. But if your company has 100 or more employees, you should. It requires that 60 days notice be given in instances of a mass layoff or plant closing. Before you go down the road of layoffs, you may have obligations to notify your workers and the government of the potential for layoffs. Be sure to comply.  Here’s a brief recap.  
  • Consider a Statistical Analysis.  I know — you didn’t like math in high school. But trust me: There is an entire profession of statistical experts available to help you figure out if the proposed layoff may have a disparate impact on a protected class of workers.  How is this done? You look at the class of workers that may be impacted by the proposed reduction in force and have an analysis done to see whether your neutral criteria may not be so neutral after all. Sometimes there are explanations for the disparate impact; but sometimes, the analysis can force employers to take a second look. Regardless, this can be an important step.  Just make sure to use an attorney to help give guidance here.
  • Understand the OWBPA.  It stands for the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act and it’s part of the federal law on age discrimination.  And if you want your employees to sign separation agreements (as I think you should) when you do your layoffs, your agreements better comply with this act.  I did a recap in 2008 that still holds up today.  

Before you have a crisis on your hands, talk internally about what the reasonable expectations for 2019 are going to be. If a possible cutback to personnel is even being discussed, now is the time to get ahead of things.

Earlier this week, I discussed the benefits of providing notice to employees who may be affected by mass layoffs and plant closings, by complying with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act.

But what exactly does the WARN Act require and who is covered? Here are some basic answers to some basic questions. As always, those who need more information should seek legal counsel and review the applicable laws.   In addition, some states have additional requirements that must be complied with; this post just discusses the WARN Act.courtesy morgue file "industry"

Who’s Covered?

Not all employers are covered. Employers who have 100 or more full-time employees are covered. But employers who have 100 or more full-time AND part-time employees who, in total, work more than 4000 hours per week are also covered.  Most governments are not covered, but some quasi-public and public entities may be covered.

When Does WARN Apply?

As I discussed in my prior post, there are two types of events that are covered  by WARN — plant closings and mass layoffs. "Employment Losses" within each of them triggers some notice requirements.  All of these terms have a definition though. 

"Plant closings" are a permanent or temporary shutdown of a "single site of employment" (though it can also be one or more facilities or operating units within a single site of employment), so long as the shutdown results in an employment loss at that site for 50 or more full-time employees during any 30-day period.

"Mass layoffs" are a reduction in force (that is also not the result of a plant closing) that results in an employment loss at a single site of employment during any 30- day period for at least 50 employees.  These 50 or more employees must also make-up at least 33 percent total employees (excluding any part-time employees). This will also be satisfied if there are at least 500 employees (excluding any part-time employees) affected by the mass layoff as well.

What Is An "Employment Loss"?

Despite its term, the term "employment loss" is fairly broad.  It means either:

  1. a termination of employment for reasons other than a discharge for cause, voluntary departure, or retirement,
  2. a layoff longer than six months (which indicates that the employee may return after the "layoff", or 
  3. a reduction in hours of more than 50 percent during each month of any six-month period.

What Notice Is Required? 

A WARN notice must be given to each employee at least 60 days before a plant closing or mass layoff.  However, if there is a union, the notice must be given to the union representative of the affected employees. 

In Connecticut, notice must also be provided to the Connecticut dislocated worker unit (see below) and the chief elected official of the local government where the closing or layoff is occurring. 

The Website for the Connecticut Department of Labor has some more specifics on the notice required:

Written notification should be printed on company letterhead, signed by the authorized employer representative, and addressed to:

Rapid Response Unit
Connecticut Department of Labor
200 Folly Brook Boulevard
Wethersfield, CT 06109-1114

This notification should include: the name and address of the employment site where the plant closing or mass lay off will occur; the date(s) of proposed closing or mass layoff; the number of affected workers, and address of their collective bargaining representative and chief elected officer if applicable; and, the name, address, and telephone number of the employer representative to contact regarding the closing or mass layoff.

Interestingly enough, the DOL site also encourages employers to seek legal counsel regarding the notices. 

As with lots of federal laws, there are some exceptions and some tricky questions that arise such as what happens when you have multiple layoffs within a short time that don’t trigger WARN individually but would collectively, and what happens in situations that are not foreseeable (plant burns down and must therefore close immediately). 

The U.S. Department of Labor has some additional guidance on this issue for those types of situations in this employer’s guide.

Six months ago, I predicted a renewed emphasis on reduction in force laws and regulations with the possibility of an economic slowdown looming.  With six months left to go in the year, I’m still feeling good (if you can feel "good" about such things) about that prediction. 

Is the economy still on the yellow brick road or are we walking deeper into the forest filled with lions, tigers and bears?

The statistics from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission do not paint a rosy picture.  

The numbers of discrimination claims filed with the EEOC are up.  

And up by a lot.

In fact, the EEOC reported a 21 percent increase in charges for the first quarter of 2008, over the same period last year. 

So what can employers do? I talked a few weeks ago about one aspect of reductions in force — namely compliance with the OWBPA (Older Worker Benefit Protection Act) and how compliance with that law can avoid one pitfall associated with a reduction in force. 

But another law that is commonly misunderstood is the WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act.  WARN is not a mandatory severance law; in other words, it doesn’t mean that employers need to give employees severance when they are affected by a mass layoff or plant closing.

What WARN does require is that the employer give notice to employees who may be affected by a plant closing or mass layoff.  The Department of Labor has prepared this fact sheet for employers to answer some of the basic questions.   It is a law that is, frankly, fairly easy to comply with, and yet there are still some employers who are facing class actions for their alleged failure to comply

In addition to notice to employees, the employer must also notify the Connecticut Department of Labor of its proposed actions.  The state then posts them in monthly reports available here.  You can view July’s report here.

What is fascinating about the reports thus far is that Connecticut has, as of now, avoided some of the mass layoffs that have plagued some of the other states.  The June reports for Connecticut show only 400 or so employees statewide who received WARN notices.  Moreover, numbers released over the weekend show that Connecticut employers have added jobs, not eliminated them.  Whether this trend continues will be an item to watch for in the second half of 2008.

In an upcoming post, I’ll highlight some of the particulars of WARN in more detail.  Until then, try to avoid the fields of sleeping flowers.